Proper Size for a One-Man Shop

Bigger is better, woodworkers agree. April 6, 2007

I am trying to decide how big to make my shop. I have been told that for a one person shop, I should have a space no bigger than a two car garage. Otherwise I would be putting a lot of miles on my boots each day. I've come up with a few designs and they work, but I hardly have room for an office area or an area to store finished cabinets ready to bring to the jobsite.

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor S:
For a one-man professional shop building cabinets, 500 sq ft is not enough. I know, I work in one. There is room for tools and a little for assembly, but there is no room to store finished cabinets before shipping them out and no area for a good spray booth. If what you are building is furniture, this doesn't apply, but I'm planning on going to at least 800 sq ft when I build the new shop, and maybe a little more. You want to keep the shop as small as possible for a lot of reasons, but a two car garage is not enough in my opinion.

From the original questioner:
Thanks. I've decided to make it at least 30x45 to fit everything I need to put in the shop, and that works.

From contributor W:
Even 800, in my opinion, is too small. I worked out of a 2 car garage for years and finally moved to the country and built a new house and shop. The main part of the shop that is used for business is 30 x 50 and I found out that I needed some more tools because now I have all this space. I soon found out with new tools, I have no more space. We just built onto the shop and added a 20 x 42 spray area. Can't wait to get that area going.

The problem you run into with a small shop is getting around all the cabinets when you are building a complete kitchen with bathroom vanities. Try finishing them and building cabinets at the same time without getting sawdust all in the finish. It seems like you're shut down while the finish is drying. If you don't have a lot of equipment, you may be okay.

I have a 12'x12' work table with table saw built into one end and another table saw built into the opposite end with molding head installed.

24" commercial planer
8" jointer
13 hole line bore
P-Matic shaper
W & H molder
24" Jet band saw
120" vert. panel saw
Delta radial arm saw
Delta 14" band saw
drill press
blum hinge machine
Hollow chisel mortiser
Snap-On 80 gal 7.5hp compressor
3 - twin bag dust collectors
48" edge sander
tons of hand tools
37" wide belt sander
24" drum sander

Like I said, you will run out of space very quickly if you like tools. I started collecting tools long before I went full time. I would suggest building twice as big as you think you will need. And then as your business grows, you will have room for growth. Otherwise you will be looking for a new shop soon.

From contributor M:
While considering what size boat to purchase, I was told by an old shipwright to figure the smallest boat that I could live with, then half that is the boat you want. It seems to me that when considering cabinet shops, you should apply the inverse of the above rule. You can always put up temp partition walls to conserve heat.

From contributor K:
Many moons ago, my first shop (2-3 man) was only 1500sf, and that got small very quick, and even after I went to 2000sf, it was more comfortable, but still lacked the flow I was looking for. I recently set up a home shop, nothing fancy... a table saw, compressor, duct collector, tool rack, and hand tools; it is 25' x 27' or 675sf, with 10' ceiling, and I can't imagine building 18-25 cabs for a kitchen and keeping my sanity. I've never had an equipped shop in my garage before, so this is new to me at least.
My suggestion is that if you are putting out the funds to build a bigger shop (not on your residential property), I would highly recommend building it big enough to accommodate you and two tenants. If you are financing this shop, the difference in payment will be more than covered by the rentals, and you will end up with, for all intents and purposes, a "free" shop (although you'll rent it to yourself). 3 bays at 32' x 65', or 2080sf. Set up basic electric for the other two bays to get your CO, and set yours up. When I rented, I was responsible for any additional electrical installed in all three of the places I rented. Now, I don't know where you live, but let's say you can set this up for around $100-$150K (I know it's different based on where you live)...

As an example, a $150,000.00 loan for 15 years at 6.5% would only be approximately $1300/month ($985 for 30 years). Even with RET's, that amount can come close to being covered by only one tenant, let alone two, and the rest, along with the tax write-offs, is income. You'll have a new shop, and even with no renters, a manageable mortgage in lieu of rent. Because of your wise business decision, you will have someone else paying for the loan on your property, while you are building equity, which you can use as retirement income in the form of a sale or continued rental income, except now for 3 bays. If you decide against the above, on size, for a one-man shop, I would still recommend at least 1500sf.

From contributor K:
P.S. Even when I moved into the next shop (6500sf - 5250 on the main floor and 1250 upstairs for office area, etc.), I thought it was all the space I would ever need... After setting up the cabinet area, and then a spray area and then a countertop area, I couldn't believe how quickly the space shrunk. But, much better flow... It all depends on what you are setting yourself up for.

From contributor R:
You didn’t say what you were going to be doing in it. I did kitchens and built-ins, so let me tell you how mine came to be and worked. I started in a 2-car garage, moved to a rental shop with showroom space and discovered a 1-man shop can’t build and sell at the same time. Somebody will always be there asking questions, especially after the retired guys find you.

In planning the new shop, I made templates of my machines plus the ones I thought I would be getting, and their required working area (the area required for using the machine) with the operation elevations. I then laid out the shop on graph paper, letting working areas overlap and even letting higher elevation machine working areas overlap lower machines. The result was 24x40 with a little over half of it working zone and the balance current work finish and storage, with a second story for long term storage. After it was built I closed the shop, but kept the showroom office, which I had open only 2 days a week (Friday and Saturday) and wouldn’t tell anyone where the shop was – not even delivery people. I received all materials at the showroom location. The showroom was 22 x 30 with a glass front on a very busy street not far from a traffic light, so I had a captive audience. It was lit till midnight and had 4 vignettes in it that could be seen from the street – this was my advertising.

After 25 years in that shop, I can tell you that:
1. It’s not big enough. You might think you have planned for all your machinery needs, but you haven’t. You will need bigger versions of what you currently have and there will be technology shifts that will require new machines that may not even be invented yet. I did my shop before European hardware was available here, so there was no place for line boring, automatic edge banding or case clamp. Because of this I had to design and build my own compact multi-purpose machines. By itself, building your own machinery is not cost effective, but getting a new building is real expensive.

2. Somebody is going to figure out where you are working and the word will spread. Hide your location as best as you can - 20 miles from town may be to close - and hope for the best. Don’t let pride compromise this!

3. If possible, live near the shop – not the showroom. You will spend more time with your family if the shop is nearby.

4. Unless you like stress, do not hire employees. You won’t get rich in this business, but it can be a good living. You can hire your minor kids to do things like cleaning and washing the truck. You will have to comply with your state laws on this – but it is a legitimate means to keep wealth within the family. There may be a minimum wage, but not a maximum.

From contributor F:
I'm a one man shop, with 1440 sf of usable square footage. I find that the lack of needed square footage is a major problem that's costing me time, money, and lost jobs. The county I live in will let me add on, but only if it's up to commercial code, which means 1500 sf could cost me well over $100,000. That means I'm stuck with what I have (buy more trailers or something). All the while I know of four cabinet shops being built on private land nearby that are not to code, with pole barn permits, but my county chooses who to look at and who to ignore. We're thinking about moving to another area in Oregon, just so I can have a larger legal shop. I often have to move several cabinets around just to use the table saw or wide belt sander. A good size for a one man shop would be 2500 sf. or bigger. That seems kind of large just starting out, but a few cabinet jobs in storage (the builder is stalling a delivery for some or many reasons) will take up all of your extra space quickly. New machinery will eat up space fast also. Then there's a showroom that could increase your bottom line, and office, bathroom, rec room and bar.

From contributor P:
I have 2100sf of shop space for me and a part-timer. It ain't enough. It's okay if you only have one job going, but if you have two kitchens and maybe a mantel or something at the same time, it's a real headache. Impossible to clean, difficult to store plywood and boards, and a real pain to do two assemblies and/or finishes at once. I own my building and an acre that it sits on and am planning on building a new 4500sf building this fall or next spring behind it. You just can't have too much room.

From contributor O:
Contributor F, I would try some steel containers like are used in shipping. You can buy them and take them with you when you go to your legal shop. Our local Wal-Mart uses them as storage for seasonal items and the cost is reasonable. A dollar per sq ft would be very cheap compared to a 100K addition.

From contributor L:
When I was a one-man shop with a part timer, I had 2500 ft and was often cramped for space. Moved to 4,000, then outgrew that! I'm a tool nut, so that might have been part of the problem. Moving is really expensive, so plan ahead. A tall ceiling sure makes life easier and storage better.

From contributor A:
Build the biggest shop you can afford. Contributor K's idea for adjacent rental property is interesting. I never considered that option. I have about 1100 sf and a 8'x20' delivery trailer. It's not enough and never has been. It's me, my wife and one full time helper. We've always been able to make it work, but not without a struggle. For example, right now I have 8/4 oak lumber stored under my bed and will put some frames in my son's bedroom on Tuesday. Like I said, build the biggest shop you can afford.

From contributor B:
Build the biggest shop you can afford. If you now use a table saw for all your cuts, what happens when you get that slider? Or move up to a CNC? Growth and increasing production are common goals. And generally, new equipment can help you achieve these goals.

As soon as you fill the shop with a large job, you can't move efficiently, so you don't build the job until the doors and drawer boxes come in and you can deliver soon after. Sure, you can put most everything on wheels, but you're always having to shove something out of the way. I understand you need 1000 sf for each additional employee. I have 1800 sf, and it isn't enough. 3000 sure would be nice.

Where would you like to be in 5 years?

From contributor E:
I'm a one man shop with a part timer. 2000 sq. ft. is very cramped when working on kitchens or other bigger jobs. Having a shop the size of a two car garage is great if you're a hobbyist; not even close for a professional. A few extra steps a day is the last thing you need to be worried about if you're doing this for a living. How about unloading twenty sheets of 3/4" ply by yourself, or 300 bd. ft. of hard maple? Those are the things you should worry about.

My recommendations for a small professional shop in general would be...
- No less than 2000 sq. ft. to start; if you are successful, you'll outgrow it.
- No less than 10' ceilings, but 12' would be better.
- You'll need at least a 200amp electrical panel if you only have single phase, as everything will be off that panel. If you can get a building with 3 phase, go for it.
- Garage door for loading/unloading is a must.
- Try to locate yourself away from residential. My residential neighborhood prevents me from putting my dust collection outside, a real pain.
- If you're in an urban area, keep in mind how easy/difficult it will be to secure your shop.

These are the basics. You can always add other things like a separate office space, etc. depending on what's available in your area. Around here there's plenty of commercial space so it's easier to be selective.

From contributor N:
One thing most people forget to allow for is storage for leftover materials. When you operate your own business, you hate to throw things away. Eventually you accumulate quite a stock of lumber and plywood cutoffs. When you finally decide to throw some of it away, the next day you will find a use for it. If you are doing lots of kitchens, it is cheaper to buy a lift of melamine and keep it on hand.

From contributor L:
One other thought, deliveries by semi. They need room to get around and often can't in residential areas. Keep in mind you will want a forklift sooner or later. Unloading a unit of melamine by hand does save going to the gym, but...

From contributor C:
Contributor K hit the nail right on the head! Real estate is where the money is. Commercial property is not very likely to lose money. If you have to, take on a partner (for the real estate and rental, not the shop). I know a couple of guys that do just that - buy the land, throw up metal buildings, and rent out half or a third or quarter and put one of their own places in one portion of the building. A well-designed building is expandable and/or relocateable. One guy dismantled half of a building to put up a two story building in its space and reassembled the used parts (with additional materials) at another location.

Don't get greedy, though - markets can change and a happy tenant is more prone to stay put than is one that you keep jacking the rent up on. And while an unrented space may be a loss on the tax form, it won't help pay your bills at the end of the month.